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Time Travel and Fictions of Science

In 1856, Edward Burnett Tylor, of inscribed with “Huitzilopochtli the god of war, Teoyaomiqui his wife, and Mictlanteuctli the god of hell” all compiled into a gruesome symbol of Aztec religion.  “There is little doubt,” Tylor opined, “that this is the famous war-idol which stood on the great teocalli of Mexico, and before which so many thousands of human victims were sacrificed.”  The famous sculpture, now surveying its victims in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Chapultepec Park, took on an early identification as a female divinity and passed into common culture as Coatlicue (“She of the Serpent Skirt”).  She is now, so a more recent theory holds, not simply the earth/mother goddess, but a representation of a tzitzimitl, one of any number of female sacred personages of ambivalent powers and actions.  At their worst, the tzitzimime (pl.) could be “star demons” descending to devour humans, but for the most part these female powers, in good Aztec fashion pivoted around duality, a complementarity that balanced threat with surety in their various avatars.

Tylor’s observations about the “war goddess” and Mexico overall, peering into its barbaric past through the residual survivals of a culture he predicted would fall to the United States, is a good mix of science and great deal of fiction.  While not exactly “science fiction” as we have come to know the genre, travelling forward from his time we can see how the spectacle and rudeness of Aztec ritual and human sacrifice aided Tylor in his scientific speculations on the evolution of cultures and the pre-modern human mind at work as it grasped to understand the natural world.  Ever the scientist, Tylor studded his travelogue with the best resources of his time, quoting Lord Kingsborough on Mexican antiquities, Humboldt’s meticulous measurement and mapping on Mexico a half century earlier, and he even provides the reader with a “Table of Aztec roots” to be compared with Sanskrit and related Indo-European forms.  Yet despite his best scholarly efforts, Tylor’s Anahuac is “fiction” in the same way that Europeans have drawn on their vast reservoir of myths, legends, and stories of Amazons and the Lost Tribes of Israel in their mastery of the Americas.  Columbus (in)famously believed he was near the Garden of Eden as he entered the Orinoco in 1498.  So, too, Tylor, while careful to dismiss any number of arguments claiming “supposed Aztec-Bible traditions,” cannot contain his wonder at the similarities between the Aztec and Hindu cosmogonies, and Aztec and Asian calendrics and astronomy (“resemblances in the signs used that seem too close for chance”).

Much, much later, or maybe much, much earlier – we will never know exactly when – Dr. Who and his companions dropped from the stars, landing smack dab in the middle of the great Aztec high priest Yetaxa’s tomb sometime in the 15th century.   We mere humans saw it in 1964, in one of the first serials of what is, arguably, television’s most successful franchises of any genre.  As far as science fiction television goes, Dr. Who is the gold standard for its quirkiness, kitschy but effective visuals, and astonishing insight into humanicity.  For Americans, the enigmatic but ever pragmatic Dr. Who remains the incarnation of British “clever.”

In Aztecs, one of the travellers, Barbara, is mistaken for a reincarnation of the dead priest Yetaxa.  And, never mind that Yetaxa, who was male reincarnates dw50revaztecs3as a woman, for as Barbara/Yetaxa notes, it is the spirit of Yetaxa, not the human form that counts (more on this later).   Because Barbara is a history teacher with, conveniently, a specialization in Aztec history she knows the Spanish will arrive and destroy the Aztec empire.  Thinking that if she can play out her ersatz goddess role she can rid the Aztecs of human sacrifice, preserving only the good in Aztec culture, and thus convince Cortes to spare them from destruction.  “You can’t rewrite history!” warns the Doctor.  “Not one line!”  Ultimately, Barbara/Yetaxa fails to thwart human sacrifice, and as they say, the rest is history.

What the writers of the Aztecs serial couldn’t know was that their fiction turned out to be closer to the idea of Nahua “divinity” than Tylor’s educated view.  Like most scholars of Aztec religion, Tylor believed that Aztec “gods” bore similarities with Indo-Europeans too close to ignore.  Like his comparison of Nahuatl words to Sanskrit and Greek, Tylor continued the common error of classifying the Aztec teteo to the Olympian pantheon.  Science fiction’s imaginative leap away from the pantheon model to Yetaxa’s spirit leaping from body to body is much more in line with our current understanding of how sacred power worked in ancient Mexico.

As scholars of religion engage the thought experiments in science fiction, we are forced to think and imagine beyond the building blocks of the previous generation’s knowledge.  Tylor might have benefitted from taking on the colossal Mexican Coatlicue monolith on its own terms rather than fall back on the work of earlier speculators like Kingsborough.  Maybe, like our ancestor ape-men confronting the black stela in 2001: A Space Odyssey and being catapulted a million years into space-travelling homo sapiens, Tylor would have made the leap from mere scientist into more provocative, certainly more compelling and lyrical interpretations of the stone goddess.  On a number of occasions, reading Tylor’s travelogue suggests that, indeed, he had found his way into Dr. Who’s TARDIS, travelled through time and space and landed in Mexico.  But unlike the curiosity and cleverness of the Dr. Who travellers, Tylor ‘s imagination was limited by his ethnocentrism and stodginess.  For him, Mexico continued its pitiable decline, a “second-hand” culture as he saw it.  Because Mexicans were “totally incapable of governing themselves” as he saw it, it was inevitable and positive that this failed state be swallowed up by the United States.  For Tylor then, travelling back to Aztec Mexico through the archeological remains at Cholula and Xochicalco, the pyramids at Teotihuacan, and displays of ancient objects in museums restored for him the glories of ancient Mexico which at the time were mostly fictions of science.

 

 

Dressing in Skins of Gods: New Approaches to Aztec Religion

Molly Bassett is an enthusiastic advocate for studying Mesoamerican religion, a welcome new direction in Religious Studies. She credits the critical mentorship of David Carrasco, Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of Latin America Studies at the Harvard Divinity School. Although she does not mention this, his influence makes her an intellectual “granddaughter” of Mircea Eliade, who was Carrasco’s principal advisor at the University of Chicago and to whom Carrasco has paid special homage in Waiting for the Dawn: Mircea Eliade in Perspective (Carrasco and Law 2009). Mostly due to a dearth of qualified teachers, interpretation of Mesoamerican religions has been undertaken by individuals with little or no formal training in religious studies. As a result, many have made their way into this field via an autodidactic approach. On the upside, Bassett emphasizes how Mesoamerican studies push scholars to be interdisciplinary. Her work on the rich Florentine Codex, the Codex Mexicanus, and other 16th century sources builds on prior work by art historians such as Diana Magaloni (a student of Mary Miller at Yale) as well as linguists, ethnohistorians, paleographers, and archaeologists.

Bassett rightly notes the preconceptions and prejudices that students typically bring to studies of the Aztecs, among them notions of human sacrifice (which, given divine reciprocity, might be better understood as “human gifting”), cannibalism (or anthropophagy, both actual and metaphorical), and other forms of ambiguous violence. These have been the subject of a brilliant essay, “Ethics and Ethnocentricity in Interpretation and Critique: Challenges to the Anthropology of Corporeality and Death,” by archaeologist Arthur Demarest (Vanderbilt) in The Taking and Displaying of Human Body Parts as Trophies by Amerindians (Chacon & Dye 2008). He outlines radically different conceptions of blood and bodies among Spanish and Aztecs, noting, for example, that Spanish horror at Aztec rituals was shaped by specific Christian beliefs about the sanctity of the blood and body of Christ, human mortality and corporality, ethnocentric perceptions that condition Western consciousness even today. For the Aztecs, flaying humans and wearing their skin inside-out (as was done with the Culhua princess) represented a profoundly different conception of personhood and corporality. Just as a hardcore vegetarian, vegan, or animal rights activist might recoil at a supermarket meat counter or a leather goods shop, Spanish reactions to Aztec practices were conditioned by distinctly non-universal values and beliefs. As Demarest writes, “Neither ethnocentric revulsion nor ethnocentric purification can substitute for elucidating, as best we can, the nature and meaning of the beliefs and practices of other societies.”

From another perspective, recent scholarship on Mesoamerican religions has been influenced by Mircea Eliade in a persistent fashion that has yet to be critically addressed. For example, discussions of Olmec and Maya religious art and iconography refer routinely to concepts of an axis mundi, a tripartite cosmology, “shamanism,” and archetypes of the World Tree and Cosmic Mountain that come directly from Eliade’s work. However, these often lack direct citations, much less critical analyses based on the history and context of Eliade’s ideas (an example of this would be the 1993 book Maya Cosmos, by Friedel, Schele, and Parker, but a pervasive use of these concepts persists to the present). These and related concepts are often taken for granted by art historians, but their tacit acceptance merits a closer analysis by scholars in Religious Studies, who may be prepared to evaluate the influence of Eliade on fields of study other than their own and to offer alternative models. One recent work relevant to Bassett’s research as well as interdisciplinary methodology is Wearing Culture: Dress and Regalia in Early Mesoamerican and Central America (Orr and Looper 2014), which considers cultures much earlier than the Aztecs, ones contemporary with early Judaism and Christianity, but lacks a Religious Studies approach.

Mesoamericanists and other specialists in pre-Hispanic cultures of Latin America often question Kirchhoff’s original 1943 model of “Mesoamerica” and its utility for understanding broader interaction in the southern U.S., Caribbean basin, southern Central America, and northern South America. Interestingly, in the same article, Kirchhoff also proposed the notion of a “Chibchan” area to the south, one that has now become even more relevant given recent announcements of the “discovery” of a “lost city” or “vanished civilization” in non-Mesoamerican eastern Honduras. Yes, Mesoamerican religion is a fascinating and stimulating area for more Religious Studies scholarship, but I’m sure Bassett would enthusiastically agree that this extends to approaches to religion throughout the Americas. She says, “Puritans pale by comparison to Aztecs,” but they also pale in comparison to Mayas, Chibchas, Taínos, Moches, Tiwanakus, Incas, and many, many others. It would be nice to think that her work is just the beginning of a Renaissance of sorts in the study of indigenous American religions and their deep and complex intersections with Christian, New Age, and other contemporary practices. For example, the rich variety of New Religious Movements (NRMs) in Latin America and the U.S. that assert neo-Aztec, Maya, and other Mesoamerican identities call for evaluation on their own terms.

Xipe Totec (“Our Lord the Flayed One”) wears the flayed skin of a sacrificial victim. “Wearing people’s skins” is powerful imagery, tied to how we understand them by putting “skins” (such as “religion”) on them.

Bassett’s emphasis on questions and methodological toolkits is especially valuable. These should include theoretical toolkits specific to Religious Studies. Mesoamerican religion is fertile ground for a host of new approaches that go well beyond traditional (Eliadean) comparative studies. Public fascination with “ancient” civilizations of Mexico (including ones such as the Aztecs that are no more ancient than Leonardo da Vinci) derive from Romantic notions that can be traced to myths of Lost Tribes and lost continents, recurrent tropes in traditions from Mormons to New Age traditions that have sought to both “other” and to mistakenly identify Native peoples. A detailed knowledge of the history of Mesoamerican studies, both scholarly and vernacular, as well as contemporary scholarship by archaeologists, art historians, and ethnohistorians is essential for approaching these. Bassett refers to how Aztecs may have sought to dress Cortes in order to treat him as a “god”. We must consider the adornments with which we dress pre-Hispanic indigenous religion in special skins in order to make it comprehensible to us. Of course, this includes even the manufactured skin of “religion” itself.

The Fate of Earthly Things

Aztec religion at the time of its encounter with the Spaniards in the early 16th century was a sophisticated mix of ritual and symbolic imagination. In this interview with Molly H. Bassett, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia, listeners are treated to a glimpse of a society where human sacrifice was a tool for encountering the divine, priests turned into gods and goddesses, and death held radical meanings for religious agents.

At the beginning of the interview, Dr. Bassett shares how she became involved in Mesoamerican studies thanks to her mentor, Davíd Carrasco. “Hardly anybody… in religious studies” works in this area, she says, instead they are in allied fields such as anthropology or history. Stressing the power of mentors on her career, Bassett reminds all scholars of the role a devoted teacher can have on one’s life. And, as the interview unfolds, the value of this disciplinarity is on display as Bassett is able to ask different questions of the Aztec sources than previous scholars have been.

After providing an overview of the many shared features of pre-Columbian cultures from Southern Texas all the way to Honduras that became known as Mesoamerican thanks to the work of ethnologist Paul Kirchhoff. Stepped pyramids, pictographic writing, ballgames, sacrifice, and common linguistic families are just a few of the traits that reveal the roots of this cultural area. Bassett’s work has included a focus on linguistics and especially through the study of texts employing pictograms (sound and symbols) as in the Florentine Codex and Codex Mexicanus. The Florentine Codex was composed by spanish speaker missionaries who encountered Aztecs, and then learned and translated Nahuatl into Spanish with the help of tri-lingual scribes into volumes that contained both text and commentary.

One of the most fascinating elements of these early codices is its portrayal of Spanish conquistador Cortez’ encounter with Aztec leader Montezuma. Bassett’s work on this encounter, especially in her recently published The Fate of Earthly Things, argues that the codices present this ritual occasion as one where the Spanish were presented as “teotl” or gods. For scholars this has been a challenging interpretative moment. Did the Aztecs really think the Spaniards were gods? No, says Bassett, and by asking what the Aztecs meant by “teotl” she reveals the potency of teixiptla or local embodiments of god(s). Montezuma, she claims, may have used the gift exchange with the Spaniards as a way to prepare Cortez for sacrifice and transformation into a teixiptla.

By the end of the interview, Bassett comes to articulate the value of Mesoamerican studies for undergraduate and graduate students. Her own experiences coming to establish material from a religious studies’ perspective suggest the importance of discipline and method in defining the questions we can ask and therefore the answers our subjects can provide. In the classroom her graduate students–often not even Americanists and rarely Mesoamericanists–are challenged by this material, especially by primary materials that have been approached by methods from different disciplines. For many scholars who teach method or theory courses, Bassett’s presentation of a primary source and the way different disciplines’ methods can limit or expand our inquiries is an excellent model for teachers in all areas and subjects.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk,Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, ritual paraphernalia, model airplanes, and more.

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Time Travel and Fictions of Science

In 1856, Edward Burnett Tylor, of inscribed with “Huitzilopochtli the god of war, Teoyaomiqui his wife, and Mictlanteuctli the god of hell” all compiled into a gruesome symbol of Aztec religion.  “There is little doubt,” Tylor opined, “that this is the famous war-idol which stood on the great teocalli of Mexico, and before which so many thousands of human victims were sacrificed.”  The famous sculpture, now surveying its victims in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Chapultepec Park, took on an early identification as a female divinity and passed into common culture as Coatlicue (“She of the Serpent Skirt”).  She is now, so a more recent theory holds, not simply the earth/mother goddess, but a representation of a tzitzimitl, one of any number of female sacred personages of ambivalent powers and actions.  At their worst, the tzitzimime (pl.) could be “star demons” descending to devour humans, but for the most part these female powers, in good Aztec fashion pivoted around duality, a complementarity that balanced threat with surety in their various avatars.

Tylor’s observations about the “war goddess” and Mexico overall, peering into its barbaric past through the residual survivals of a culture he predicted would fall to the United States, is a good mix of science and great deal of fiction.  While not exactly “science fiction” as we have come to know the genre, travelling forward from his time we can see how the spectacle and rudeness of Aztec ritual and human sacrifice aided Tylor in his scientific speculations on the evolution of cultures and the pre-modern human mind at work as it grasped to understand the natural world.  Ever the scientist, Tylor studded his travelogue with the best resources of his time, quoting Lord Kingsborough on Mexican antiquities, Humboldt’s meticulous measurement and mapping on Mexico a half century earlier, and he even provides the reader with a “Table of Aztec roots” to be compared with Sanskrit and related Indo-European forms.  Yet despite his best scholarly efforts, Tylor’s Anahuac is “fiction” in the same way that Europeans have drawn on their vast reservoir of myths, legends, and stories of Amazons and the Lost Tribes of Israel in their mastery of the Americas.  Columbus (in)famously believed he was near the Garden of Eden as he entered the Orinoco in 1498.  So, too, Tylor, while careful to dismiss any number of arguments claiming “supposed Aztec-Bible traditions,” cannot contain his wonder at the similarities between the Aztec and Hindu cosmogonies, and Aztec and Asian calendrics and astronomy (“resemblances in the signs used that seem too close for chance”).

Much, much later, or maybe much, much earlier – we will never know exactly when – Dr. Who and his companions dropped from the stars, landing smack dab in the middle of the great Aztec high priest Yetaxa’s tomb sometime in the 15th century.   We mere humans saw it in 1964, in one of the first serials of what is, arguably, television’s most successful franchises of any genre.  As far as science fiction television goes, Dr. Who is the gold standard for its quirkiness, kitschy but effective visuals, and astonishing insight into humanicity.  For Americans, the enigmatic but ever pragmatic Dr. Who remains the incarnation of British “clever.”

In Aztecs, one of the travellers, Barbara, is mistaken for a reincarnation of the dead priest Yetaxa.  And, never mind that Yetaxa, who was male reincarnates dw50revaztecs3as a woman, for as Barbara/Yetaxa notes, it is the spirit of Yetaxa, not the human form that counts (more on this later).   Because Barbara is a history teacher with, conveniently, a specialization in Aztec history she knows the Spanish will arrive and destroy the Aztec empire.  Thinking that if she can play out her ersatz goddess role she can rid the Aztecs of human sacrifice, preserving only the good in Aztec culture, and thus convince Cortes to spare them from destruction.  “You can’t rewrite history!” warns the Doctor.  “Not one line!”  Ultimately, Barbara/Yetaxa fails to thwart human sacrifice, and as they say, the rest is history.

What the writers of the Aztecs serial couldn’t know was that their fiction turned out to be closer to the idea of Nahua “divinity” than Tylor’s educated view.  Like most scholars of Aztec religion, Tylor believed that Aztec “gods” bore similarities with Indo-Europeans too close to ignore.  Like his comparison of Nahuatl words to Sanskrit and Greek, Tylor continued the common error of classifying the Aztec teteo to the Olympian pantheon.  Science fiction’s imaginative leap away from the pantheon model to Yetaxa’s spirit leaping from body to body is much more in line with our current understanding of how sacred power worked in ancient Mexico.

As scholars of religion engage the thought experiments in science fiction, we are forced to think and imagine beyond the building blocks of the previous generation’s knowledge.  Tylor might have benefitted from taking on the colossal Mexican Coatlicue monolith on its own terms rather than fall back on the work of earlier speculators like Kingsborough.  Maybe, like our ancestor ape-men confronting the black stela in 2001: A Space Odyssey and being catapulted a million years into space-travelling homo sapiens, Tylor would have made the leap from mere scientist into more provocative, certainly more compelling and lyrical interpretations of the stone goddess.  On a number of occasions, reading Tylor’s travelogue suggests that, indeed, he had found his way into Dr. Who’s TARDIS, travelled through time and space and landed in Mexico.  But unlike the curiosity and cleverness of the Dr. Who travellers, Tylor ‘s imagination was limited by his ethnocentrism and stodginess.  For him, Mexico continued its pitiable decline, a “second-hand” culture as he saw it.  Because Mexicans were “totally incapable of governing themselves” as he saw it, it was inevitable and positive that this failed state be swallowed up by the United States.  For Tylor then, travelling back to Aztec Mexico through the archeological remains at Cholula and Xochicalco, the pyramids at Teotihuacan, and displays of ancient objects in museums restored for him the glories of ancient Mexico which at the time were mostly fictions of science.

 

 

Dressing in Skins of Gods: New Approaches to Aztec Religion

Molly Bassett is an enthusiastic advocate for studying Mesoamerican religion, a welcome new direction in Religious Studies. She credits the critical mentorship of David Carrasco, Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of Latin America Studies at the Harvard Divinity School. Although she does not mention this, his influence makes her an intellectual “granddaughter” of Mircea Eliade, who was Carrasco’s principal advisor at the University of Chicago and to whom Carrasco has paid special homage in Waiting for the Dawn: Mircea Eliade in Perspective (Carrasco and Law 2009). Mostly due to a dearth of qualified teachers, interpretation of Mesoamerican religions has been undertaken by individuals with little or no formal training in religious studies. As a result, many have made their way into this field via an autodidactic approach. On the upside, Bassett emphasizes how Mesoamerican studies push scholars to be interdisciplinary. Her work on the rich Florentine Codex, the Codex Mexicanus, and other 16th century sources builds on prior work by art historians such as Diana Magaloni (a student of Mary Miller at Yale) as well as linguists, ethnohistorians, paleographers, and archaeologists.

Bassett rightly notes the preconceptions and prejudices that students typically bring to studies of the Aztecs, among them notions of human sacrifice (which, given divine reciprocity, might be better understood as “human gifting”), cannibalism (or anthropophagy, both actual and metaphorical), and other forms of ambiguous violence. These have been the subject of a brilliant essay, “Ethics and Ethnocentricity in Interpretation and Critique: Challenges to the Anthropology of Corporeality and Death,” by archaeologist Arthur Demarest (Vanderbilt) in The Taking and Displaying of Human Body Parts as Trophies by Amerindians (Chacon & Dye 2008). He outlines radically different conceptions of blood and bodies among Spanish and Aztecs, noting, for example, that Spanish horror at Aztec rituals was shaped by specific Christian beliefs about the sanctity of the blood and body of Christ, human mortality and corporality, ethnocentric perceptions that condition Western consciousness even today. For the Aztecs, flaying humans and wearing their skin inside-out (as was done with the Culhua princess) represented a profoundly different conception of personhood and corporality. Just as a hardcore vegetarian, vegan, or animal rights activist might recoil at a supermarket meat counter or a leather goods shop, Spanish reactions to Aztec practices were conditioned by distinctly non-universal values and beliefs. As Demarest writes, “Neither ethnocentric revulsion nor ethnocentric purification can substitute for elucidating, as best we can, the nature and meaning of the beliefs and practices of other societies.”

From another perspective, recent scholarship on Mesoamerican religions has been influenced by Mircea Eliade in a persistent fashion that has yet to be critically addressed. For example, discussions of Olmec and Maya religious art and iconography refer routinely to concepts of an axis mundi, a tripartite cosmology, “shamanism,” and archetypes of the World Tree and Cosmic Mountain that come directly from Eliade’s work. However, these often lack direct citations, much less critical analyses based on the history and context of Eliade’s ideas (an example of this would be the 1993 book Maya Cosmos, by Friedel, Schele, and Parker, but a pervasive use of these concepts persists to the present). These and related concepts are often taken for granted by art historians, but their tacit acceptance merits a closer analysis by scholars in Religious Studies, who may be prepared to evaluate the influence of Eliade on fields of study other than their own and to offer alternative models. One recent work relevant to Bassett’s research as well as interdisciplinary methodology is Wearing Culture: Dress and Regalia in Early Mesoamerican and Central America (Orr and Looper 2014), which considers cultures much earlier than the Aztecs, ones contemporary with early Judaism and Christianity, but lacks a Religious Studies approach.

Mesoamericanists and other specialists in pre-Hispanic cultures of Latin America often question Kirchhoff’s original 1943 model of “Mesoamerica” and its utility for understanding broader interaction in the southern U.S., Caribbean basin, southern Central America, and northern South America. Interestingly, in the same article, Kirchhoff also proposed the notion of a “Chibchan” area to the south, one that has now become even more relevant given recent announcements of the “discovery” of a “lost city” or “vanished civilization” in non-Mesoamerican eastern Honduras. Yes, Mesoamerican religion is a fascinating and stimulating area for more Religious Studies scholarship, but I’m sure Bassett would enthusiastically agree that this extends to approaches to religion throughout the Americas. She says, “Puritans pale by comparison to Aztecs,” but they also pale in comparison to Mayas, Chibchas, Taínos, Moches, Tiwanakus, Incas, and many, many others. It would be nice to think that her work is just the beginning of a Renaissance of sorts in the study of indigenous American religions and their deep and complex intersections with Christian, New Age, and other contemporary practices. For example, the rich variety of New Religious Movements (NRMs) in Latin America and the U.S. that assert neo-Aztec, Maya, and other Mesoamerican identities call for evaluation on their own terms.

Xipe Totec (“Our Lord the Flayed One”) wears the flayed skin of a sacrificial victim. “Wearing people’s skins” is powerful imagery, tied to how we understand them by putting “skins” (such as “religion”) on them.

Bassett’s emphasis on questions and methodological toolkits is especially valuable. These should include theoretical toolkits specific to Religious Studies. Mesoamerican religion is fertile ground for a host of new approaches that go well beyond traditional (Eliadean) comparative studies. Public fascination with “ancient” civilizations of Mexico (including ones such as the Aztecs that are no more ancient than Leonardo da Vinci) derive from Romantic notions that can be traced to myths of Lost Tribes and lost continents, recurrent tropes in traditions from Mormons to New Age traditions that have sought to both “other” and to mistakenly identify Native peoples. A detailed knowledge of the history of Mesoamerican studies, both scholarly and vernacular, as well as contemporary scholarship by archaeologists, art historians, and ethnohistorians is essential for approaching these. Bassett refers to how Aztecs may have sought to dress Cortes in order to treat him as a “god”. We must consider the adornments with which we dress pre-Hispanic indigenous religion in special skins in order to make it comprehensible to us. Of course, this includes even the manufactured skin of “religion” itself.

The Fate of Earthly Things

Aztec religion at the time of its encounter with the Spaniards in the early 16th century was a sophisticated mix of ritual and symbolic imagination. In this interview with Molly H. Bassett, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia, listeners are treated to a glimpse of a society where human sacrifice was a tool for encountering the divine, priests turned into gods and goddesses, and death held radical meanings for religious agents.

At the beginning of the interview, Dr. Bassett shares how she became involved in Mesoamerican studies thanks to her mentor, Davíd Carrasco. “Hardly anybody… in religious studies” works in this area, she says, instead they are in allied fields such as anthropology or history. Stressing the power of mentors on her career, Bassett reminds all scholars of the role a devoted teacher can have on one’s life. And, as the interview unfolds, the value of this disciplinarity is on display as Bassett is able to ask different questions of the Aztec sources than previous scholars have been.

After providing an overview of the many shared features of pre-Columbian cultures from Southern Texas all the way to Honduras that became known as Mesoamerican thanks to the work of ethnologist Paul Kirchhoff. Stepped pyramids, pictographic writing, ballgames, sacrifice, and common linguistic families are just a few of the traits that reveal the roots of this cultural area. Bassett’s work has included a focus on linguistics and especially through the study of texts employing pictograms (sound and symbols) as in the Florentine Codex and Codex Mexicanus. The Florentine Codex was composed by spanish speaker missionaries who encountered Aztecs, and then learned and translated Nahuatl into Spanish with the help of tri-lingual scribes into volumes that contained both text and commentary.

One of the most fascinating elements of these early codices is its portrayal of Spanish conquistador Cortez’ encounter with Aztec leader Montezuma. Bassett’s work on this encounter, especially in her recently published The Fate of Earthly Things, argues that the codices present this ritual occasion as one where the Spanish were presented as “teotl” or gods. For scholars this has been a challenging interpretative moment. Did the Aztecs really think the Spaniards were gods? No, says Bassett, and by asking what the Aztecs meant by “teotl” she reveals the potency of teixiptla or local embodiments of god(s). Montezuma, she claims, may have used the gift exchange with the Spaniards as a way to prepare Cortez for sacrifice and transformation into a teixiptla.

By the end of the interview, Bassett comes to articulate the value of Mesoamerican studies for undergraduate and graduate students. Her own experiences coming to establish material from a religious studies’ perspective suggest the importance of discipline and method in defining the questions we can ask and therefore the answers our subjects can provide. In the classroom her graduate students–often not even Americanists and rarely Mesoamericanists–are challenged by this material, especially by primary materials that have been approached by methods from different disciplines. For many scholars who teach method or theory courses, Bassett’s presentation of a primary source and the way different disciplines’ methods can limit or expand our inquiries is an excellent model for teachers in all areas and subjects.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk,Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, ritual paraphernalia, model airplanes, and more.